From ticket office to coaching staff, Kirwan takes nothing for granted
Every crowd has a prankster.
It’s impossible to escape the wrath of a mastermind jokester whose only intention is to humiliate you. These people are usually funny, easygoing and generally enjoyable people to be around. They are also very unpredictable; some can be a constant thorn in your side, while others can come along unexpectedly and provide you with the opportunity of a lifetime.
In Nigel Kirwan’s case, it was the latter.
Kirwan, who is entering his 20th season with the Tampa Bay Lightning and 16th as the team’s video coach/coordinator, remembers vividly the day that Terry Crisp, the Lightning’s head coach from 1992-98, approached him with an offer to join the coaching staff.
“I basically told him to go fly a kite,” Kirwan grinned. “Crispy was a prankster and loved to rile the office up so my immediate reaction was that he was just trying to get me going. I also had a report due to my boss that was already late so I told him to just get out of my office.”
Terry Crisp, who now works as the color commentator for the Nashville Predators, is known around the hockey world as “Crispy”. Crisp found the whole situation very amusing.
“Nigel couldn’t believe what I was offering him,” Crisp laughed. “The whole situation was bizarre. I mean a NHL coach going up to a young guy with not much experience asking him to consider video coaching. I could see how Nigel was confused and couldn’t believe it was true, but I saw something in him. He knew the game, he loved the game and his personality fit right in with our staff. He fit right in like a hand in a glove.”
The hand in glove connection between Kirwan and Crisp developed after a youth hockey position was created while Kirwan was plying his trade in ticket sales.
“I first started out in ticket sales”, Kirwan quipped. “But being an expansion franchise we needed to build a fan base around the city, so a youth hockey position was created within the organization. I took on that role and I had to go through a USA Hockey Training Program. At the time there were only 40-50 employees working for the Lightning so everyone knew everyone really well. I would ask the Lightning coaches to come out and help run youth hockey clinics and tournaments and that is where Crispy and I got to know each other really well.”
“After these clinics we would go to lunch and Nigel would just pick my brain about different coaching tactics, systems, all that,” Crisp said. “I noticed he had a really good mind for the game and I was very impressed with the way he handled himself.”
Born in Jamaica, but raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Kirwan told Crisp flat out that he was not cut out for the job and didn’t have the proper credentials.
“I said, look, I never played professional hockey and I have never coached at a high level. There is no way I am qualified for this job,” Kirwan said.
Unbeknownst to Kirwan, Crisp wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I told him, yeah, you have never played professionally and yeah, you don’t have much experience, but you are exactly what we need right now and you will do a hell of a job,” Crisp said. “Wouldn’t you know it, ol’ Nigel accepted the job.”
Not only did Kirwan accept the job, he has thrived in his role as the longest tenured video coach/coordinator in the National Hockey League.
Over the past 16 seasons, Kirwan has survived seven different head coaches, four different owners, and two league work stoppages.
Crisp may have been onto something.
“Nigel has worked so hard to be in the position he is in now,” Crisp said. “He knew the ins and outs of the game before we hired him, but what really took him to the next level was working on the technical side of the game and learning the video aspects. He has no doubt been one of the most valuable people I have ever hired.”
Kirwan, however, fired back with a more humble response.
“I would like to sit here and tell you I am the best video coach in the National Hockey League but that is just not the case,” Kirwan said. “I have been fortunate enough that every time someone new came in, there was a different circumstance that allowed me to stay.”
Over the years, Kirwan has seen it all.
From a power outage forcing officials to cancel a game midway through the second period in New Jersey, only to fly back and finish the game two nights later, to former Lightning agitator Andre Roy dressing up as a stewardess on a team flight trying to get a rise out of his teammates. Through the early rebuilding years, to the long playoff runs, Kirwan’s favorite memory came in 2004.
“Winning the Stanley Cup in 2004 was an incredible experience,” Kirwan smiles. “As a kid growing up in Canada it was something I dreamed about for years and for it to actually happen has been truly amazing. The most incredible part about it has been to be here through the genesis of the organization. Watching an organization grow and become a champion is very rewarding. I still find it embarrassing that my name is on the cup next to guys like Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman.”
Entering his 16th season on the Lightning coaching staff, the dream that Kirwan has made a reality still seems surreal.
“This was definitely not by design, not what I intended to do,” Kirwan noted. “It really is amazing how things can pan out but I try to look at this opportunity that I was given with a great deal of humility. I am very grateful to Terry Crisp for giving me my start.”
And Crisp is not surprised in the least bit at Kirwan’s longevity as a video coach in the National Hockey League, but in classic Crisp fashion, he had to send along one last jab at his former protégé.
“Well he certainly hasn’t gotten by on good looks,” Crisp laughed. “But in all seriousness I am so proud of him. It is truly amazing to think of how long he has survived in his role with all of the turnover in the NHL. He works so hard, knows the game incredibly well, and most importantly is a great guy so that’s why he has lasted.”
And if one thing is for certain, there is no joke about that.